Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

August 24, 2010

The non-superstars you don’t see

Filed under: Culture,Malcolm Gladwell,Outliers — Razib Khan @ 9:52 am

Jonah Lehrer has a post up on why it might be that top-level athletes seem to come from smaller urban areas rather than larger ones. The possible reason is interesting. But I was reminded of the “10,000 hour rule” made famous by Malcolm Gladwell. You know, how Tiger Woods’ dad “turned him” into a world class athlete from scratch? Even setting aside the elementary question of necessary and sufficient conditions, what about all those kids who invest thousands of hours and don’t “make it” big? I once knew a girl from a large Mormon family, and noticed offhand that she was far shorter than any of her siblings. I inquired as to this fact, wondering if perhaps she was adopted. Her explanation for her small stature (~2 standard deviations below the female norm) was that she was involved in competitive gymnastics up to early adolescence, and that stunted her growth.

I left it at that, but even at the time it made me wonder about the intense focus some young people have, only to realize that there are limits to the virtuosity they can achieve in their chosen domain. And this obviously applies to non-athletic areas. How many teenage “mathletes” fantasize about becoming the next Feynman? Eventually many reach graduate school and realize that perhaps they don’t have all the traits to become the next Feynman, and wonder if perhaps they wouldn’t have been better off getting a degree in engineering and going straight into the workforce after undergrad, or, perhaps entering the army of memorizing pre-med machines and eventually sliding into a smooth path which a professional guild enables.

A typical modern consumer lives as a king in the material domain. There is a level of egalitarianism in quality of life which was not the case for all of human history. And yet true virtuosity in mind and body have not become more democratic. Just as almost all humans are forgotten in a few generations, so all humans alive today will be forgotten in a few generations (for practical purposes, even if digital copies of aspects of their lives are easy to access, who would care?). Only a few luminaries will attain memetic immortality, just as always. Perhaps we moderns who have long and relatively healthy lives should think a little more about how best to invest the surfeit of non-subsistence hours we’ve been given, because the party’s over at some point.

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